BANGKOK — It wasn’t quite trepidation or fear going through my head but rather something a bit milder, more like apprehension. After all, despite the reassurances of friends who had visited Burma previously, the internet is chock full of horror stories about entering, traveling around, and exiting this rather politically isolated country. Newspapers and other media are replete with stories of political repression and the health and economic crisis in the wake of the typhoon last year. So yes, there was definitely a degree of apprehension as I traveled alone on a packed Airbus from Bangkok to Rangoon.
Reread that previous sentence. A packed airbus. The plane was one of four daily flights into Rangoon from Bangkok packed with tourists from Europe, businesspeople from throughout Asia, and returning Burmese citizens who seemed to be travelling primarily on business. There were several other flights arriving from other Asian cities as well. Perhaps Burma, or Myanmar as its military rulers have renamed it, is not so very isolated or remote.
Actually, the first hint of Burma as at least a somewhat popular tourist destination occurred when applying for a visa at Myanmar’s consulate in Bangkok. Prior to entering the building I fully anticipated being one of a small number of applicants. Instead the room was full of people in two orderly queues, one for tourist visas and one for business visas. Strangers helped each other complete forms, provide directions to obtain photos and photocopies, and generally help each other in the overall application process. After submitting my application and passport, the clerk provided a numbered receipt with instructions to return at 3:00 PM two days later to receive a visa or rejection notice.
The process for picking up an approved visa was a bit more chaotic than submitting the application. The orderly queues were replaced by a small mob scene. Success was ultimately mine and I walked out with an approved visa stamp in my passport.
Arriving at the airport in Rangoon, renamed Yangon by the junta, I tried to mentally prepare myself for any number of hurdles: complete search of all baggage, pat downs, seizure of my notes, etc. Surprise of surprises, the immigration clerk was all smiles and friendly. I proceeded to pick up my bags and walk unbothered through the “Nothing to Declare” customs line.
Beyond customs there was a phalanx of travel agent representatives holding signs with the names of arriving passengers. After a chaotic few moments, I located a cheerful looking agent holding a sign with my name.
Fast forward a day to the domestic terminal of the Rangoon airport. (Correction, make that slow forward. Virtually nothing happens fast in this part of the world, due in no small part to the weather and the prevailing culture.) Because of ground fog, a building designed for maybe 200 waiting passengers is now finding its air conditioning system taxed as about 500 of us wait somewhat patiently to board our flights. I am headed to Mandalay on Yangon Airways whose comforting motto is “You’re Safe With Us.”
The boarding announcement system consists of one young man holding a signboard aloft with flight numbers as he walks around the terminal yelling out the flight numbers and destinations in Burmese. At one point a casually dressed middle-aged man taps me on the shoulder to tell me my flight is being announced. Whoa! Who is he and how does he know my flight arrangements? A government agent keeping an eye on me? A fellow traveler who recognizes me from the check-in line? A Yangon Airways service rep whose job it is to make sure foreign travelers board flights that match the color coded stickers on their shirts as provided at check-in? Although my apprehension briefly raised a level, I hopefully and perhaps innocently concluded that this was simply the act of a good citizen or service rep.
The balance of the ten day trip was equally devoid of any apparent governmental shenanigans. Not only that but in light of the harsh penalties for local citizens involved in any crimes against foreigners, there may not be a safer country for tourists in all of Asia. (Traffic safety is another issue altogether. Vehicles drive on the right but steering wheels are also on the right, bass-ackwards to the rest of the world.)
To remain apolitical when writing about Burma, even as a tourist, is virtually impossible. Tour guides clearly indicate subjects that are safe/unsafe to photograph. In subdued tones people will state that the government should spend more on schools and hospitals rather than building up Naypyidaw, the new capital city.
That being said, if you are willing to deal with the political situation, mind the warnings about not taking photos of government facilities and soldiers, are courteous and kind to government clerks and officials, mind other rules such as regarding the export of antiques and Buddha images and refrain from attempting to contact Aung San Suu Kyi, known as The Lady, or other dissidents, there will be no reason to be apprehensive about entering, traveling about, and leaving Burma.